I love a good war hero story: my great uncle was a flying ace in the Battle of Britain and I relished hearing about his feats of daring (... and will gladly recount them given the slightest prompting). However, my tale today is of the wartime exploits of Museum entomologist Graham Howarth. They might not be grand in the combat sense (though he was awarded a medal for saving a senior officer during the Blitz earlier in the war), but in the scientific and curatorial sense, they are as bold and heroic as any you will probably hear.
During WWII Howarth was enlisted for army service in Southeast Asia. He was stationed in Singapore and tasked with identifying the breeding grounds of malarial mosquito species and disrupting their habitat in the hope of eradicating the tropical disease. As a result of his work, Howarth says it was 'safe to say that Singapore was a malarial-free zone'. But, in February 1942, Singapore surrendered to the Japanese and Howarth was taken as a prisoner of war. He recalls:
'The war was over as far as I was concerned, but a new one, a much more insidious affair, was about to begin. A war against boredom, starvation, pestilence, and death.'
He was held prisoner for three years, first at Changi and then Jinsen, Korea. But, ever the entomologist, Howarth - known as 'The Prof' to his fellow captives - maintained his scientific curiosity by collecting insects. He says:
'(Collecting) gave me something to think about rather than the boredom of being confined to an area with a hell of a lot of other people, with nothing very much to do. We weren’t worked too hard. And as long as you exhibited a certain amount of respect for the guards, and didn’t stick your head above the parapet too often... Of course, with a butterfly net, I would tend to be a bit conspicuous, but I didn’t flaunt it, shall we say.'
He had fashioned a net from a piece of galvanised wire and some mosquito netting, and if he saw ’a butterfly or a living insect or a flying insect' he would catch it, kill it, paper it and put it in an empty cigarette tin. His most important and remarkable find came in July 1944 when he spotted a caterpillar in the POW camp's garden.
'We had a flowering cherry in the garden, and on one occasion I looked up and there was a little caterpillar and I collected that. I didn’t recognise it, being something foreign to me. I found some more and I took them in and fed them on the cherry and bred them out. And (when I got home and properly identified them) it turned out to be a new species.
That's right: in between the forced labour and subsisting on meagre, weevil-infested rice rations as a prisoner of war, Graham Howarth discovered a never-before-documented moth.
'It was nice to discover a species new to science in, shall we say, rather difficult circumstances.'
On his return to the Museum he described his discovery as Apatele cerasi, after Cerasus, the scientific name for the cherry on which the larvae fed.
Apatele cerasi documented by Graham Howarth in the Proceedings and Transactions of The South London Entomological and Natural History Society 1949-50.
But, aside from finding the larvae, breeding it out, recognising it as something different and keeping his collection below the radar of the guards, it was the getting it all back to the Museum that was another feat in and of itself. By the time he was liberated, Howarth had amassed about 1,500 specimens and he had to beg kit bag space from his comrades to help bring it all home.
'(When I got back to the Museum) I set them and documented them, and they’re still there, 1,500 of them.'
Part of the Graham Howarth POW collection, which fills 13 trays and includes 1,115 Rhopalocera, 347 Heteroera and nearly 100 specimens of other orders. And, of course, Apatele cerasi.
The Museum's Lepidoptera collection consists of around 10 million specimens stored over four floors and curated by 5 scientists. Butterfly curator Blanca Huertas says it is the largest collection in terms of time and geographical range, represents 65% of all known species and contains more type specimens than any other museum. You can discover more about the collections and how they are maintained in Alessandro Giusti's Curator of Lepidoptera blog.